Tavernier was born in Paris in 1844 and lived as a child in England and France. He began studying art at age 16 and exhibited at the Paris Salon by age 20. At age 26 he was a soldier and an artist-war correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War. His drawings of Paris under siege were flown by balloon to London for publication in newspapers. He continued his career as an illustrator first in London and then in New York in 1872 for Harper’s Weekly. Traveling on horseback, Tavernier and fellow Frenchman Paul Frenzeny crossed the United States on assignment from Harper’s on an Indian campaign with a General Smith to document the American west, arriving in San Francisco in 1874. Their expedition resulted in an impressive series of wood engravings in Harper’s Weekly (Mills 1956). Tavernier’s sketches of the Nebraska Sioux recorded early Native American ritual.
Travernier quickly became part of the emerging art scene in San Francisco and was nicknamed by the press the “bohemian of bohemians” (Chalmers) for his joie de vivre and rash behavior. He was considered by some to be the most popular member of the Bohemian Club which he helped found. He also served as vice-president of the San Francisco Art Association and was responsible for the organization of the Palette Club, an artist’s union. With fellow French artist Julian Rix, Tavernier opened a studio at the corner of Jackson and Montgomery streets which became a center for the local artists. He and his wife were part of an active social scene, including hosting a party for the popular late-Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde when he visited San Francisco (Mills, 1957). Although Tavernier’s paintings were popular and sold for high prices, his drinking and partying, quarreling and increasing debts ended relationships. Tavernier wore out his welcome in Monterey where he had established a studio and artists’ colony. Paul Frénzeny had moved to Monterey with Tavernier, but their friendship ended after a fight. On his return to San Francisco, wife Lizzie Fulton tried to change her husband’s lifestyle to no avail. Fleeing debtors in 1884, the Taverniers relocated to Hawaii with funds borrowed from friends.
In Hawaii Jules shared a studio with artist Joseph Strong whom he had known from Monterey and San Francisco and they both became known along with Charles Furneaux as the Volcano School. Tavernier produced around 100 works with volcano images in oil and pastel. One extravagant panorama volcano painting was twelve feet high and ninety feet long, intended to be displayed in a circular manner with the viewer standing in the center. Despite working only five years in Hawaii, he is often referred to as the master of volcano painting. His works were so popular that he eventually became the official painter to the Hawaiian king. Travernier’s friendship with Strong was short lived and his drinking and mounting debts caused wife Lizzie to abandon him and return to San Francisco in 1887. He was befriended by the Hitchcock family in Hilo whose artist son David was his protégé, but their attempts to dry him out were unsuccessful. Tavernier was not allowed to leave Hawaii without paying all his debts and there he drank himself to death within two years. His friends at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco sent a granite tombstone to mark his grave. It has been said, “Of the French artists in California, he was probably the most talented and tragic” (Casaleggio in Baird, 1967:43).
In the early 1880s Tavernier painted in Yosemite and British Columbia and landscapes would continue to be his favorite subject. His Monterey paintings were known for their then controversial lighting effects showing sunset or moon rise influenced by French Impressionism. Depending on his mood, Travernier’s paintings could be thoughtful and well executed or amateurish and half-finished (Casaleggio in Baird, 1967). While he is best known for his paintings of the Kilauea volcano, he also painted a variety of landscapes, still life, flowers, scenes of interiors, and portraits. The Society of California Pioneers has in its collection an early and rare Tavernier genre painting The Pioneer from 1877.